Lillian Groag’s considerate production of Lehár’s Merry Widow rang down a bittersweet curtain on Boston Lyric Opera’s 18 years at the Shubert Theater. Last night, the playhouse, which opened in 1910 with The Taming of the Shrew, projected the sometimes interminable spoken words with wonderful clarity, as it was built to do. And Groag’s respectful new book which moved the proceedings a few years forward to the eve of World War I and the end of La Belle Époque, gave a gravity (needed or not) to the comedy of manners. It helped glue the variety-show or vaudeville aspects which the Shubert Brothers could easily have understood and marketed, into a sometimes sober reflection on deeper mores.
Lehár’s life can be seen as something of an encapsulation of the transformations that Groag highlights. His Jewish wife, “elevated” by Goebbels into honorary Aryan status, did not damage his career any more than his connections with the part-Jewish tenor Richard Tauber, perhaps the most brilliant ennobler and exponent of his work. Lehár tinkered with his most famous operetta enough over his lifetime that he would have understood the motivation in a later era to find a bit more spine in the confection of madcap Marx brothers style dialog, varied dance numbers and immortal tunes.
Groag’s insertion of sage advice from the likes of Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde along with the decision to mix up languages and accents gave the show some cosmopolitan chatter that suited it perfectly. On the other hand, her book’s references to Jews including a black-hatted stereotype who kept appearing with a placard announcing the end of the world made one wonder. One might also ask for a bit more clarity on the meaning of the theatrically effective soldier’s chorus somberly reprising the Merry Widow Waltz during the slow final curtain. In what army did their loden fieldcoats place them? Did the red lapel ribbons identify them in a way cognoscenti of uniforms could understand? Were they WWI French, Germans, or Russians? Or were they foreshadowing the Nazis of the next war? That interpretation might explain the Jewish supernumerary. I got the delicious irony, but the effect was imprecise.
John Conklin’s colorfully painted flats enthusiastically conflated styles of William Morris, Hector Guimard and Joseph Hoffman as they served handsomely for the Ponteverdian embassy reception hall, a garden in its grounds and a fantasy Maxim’s. Robert Wierzel lighted with rhythmic sensitivity and variety. His use of a footlighted solo and evocative silhouetting showed apt attention to mood.
BLO’s excellent chorus has a lot to do in this outing and they did it well. Much more than in most shows, they danced and cavorted while moving their lips. Choreographer Kyle Lang discovered some fine terpsichoreans among them since he was not accorded the luxury of a corps de ballet. The singing from the chorus was consistently strong and the expression enthusiastically engaged.
Perhaps because one expects a less sumptuous sound for operetta, the BLO orchestra satisfied more that it sometimes does in the absorptive Shubert Theater. Alexander Joel kept the ensembles lively through an idiomatic understanding of the morphing impulses of the various dance forms and allowed the orchestral soloists to intertwine quite splendidly with the singers when Lehár’s imaginative orchestration demanded it. A bit more schmaltz might have been nice, but getting modern players to slide is challenging with only a couple of rehearsals.
The solo singing maintained a consistency that must have resulted from good preparation. No opening night jitters were evidenced. In the title role, soprano Erin Wall brought her own spotlight. Her creamy tones and diminuendo to a floated high B in “Vilja” ravished. Roger Honeywell as a rather dour Count Danilo was the evening’s disappointment. Despite well produced and focused tones, he failed to charm or carry. Though he looked fine in the part, and his waltzing was ok, the tessitura seems to lie a bit low for him. How he will be able to manage Don Jose in BLO’s Carmen at the 2,800 seat Opera House next season seems a big question mark. [Ed. Note: Honeywell was apparently suffering from some undisclosed indisposition]
As Camille de Rosillon, John Tessier poured out fine tenor tones, ardent musicality and great chemistry with his Valencienne Chelsea Basler. Their Act II duet came with quiet but intense plangence. Andrew Wilkowske as Baron Zeta and Jesse Blumberg as Njegus displayed good comic sense.
Too bad, though, that the bubbly a seemed to flow mostly at the intermission. Merry Widow hardly stands as a guilty pleasure that needs an additional layer of didactic redeeming social value. Skewer us instead with the Lubitsch touch, and give us more froth, if anything; we can then reflect for ourselves on how the bubbles fell flat as the era ended.